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Herzog & de Meuron design Tate Modern’s Switch House

In the 1980s, the Tate Gallery had expanded beyond its means at Millbank. Deciding to relocate its contemporary collection the Tate established ‘Tate Modern’ at the Bankside Power Station, originally built in the 1950s. It was transformed into a contemporary art museum in the mid-90s by the Swiss architectural firm, Herzog & de Meuron.

The new Tate Modern is positioned on the Southbank facing Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral, a face-off between Art Deco and ‘super modernism’ versus English Baroque. The industrial shell of brick, encasing a steel frame with a prominent chimney, has been deemed an ‘industrial cathedral’. The original architect was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott who built the power station as a machine of its own, housing electrical turbines. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were challenged with reversing this un-public space into the ultimate communal space; creating a contemporary building and democratising modern art.

Herzog & de Meuron’s proposal for Bankside Power Station won in part because of their subtle treatment of the existing structure; rather than making sweeping alterations, the duo enhanced the building by flooding it with natural light through a roof light box and made the Turbine Hall a central shared area for visitors to experience installations. Following their successful re-design in the 90s, the Tate Modern invited the Swiss firm again to create an addition to its world-renowned modern art museum, called the Switch House.

A relatively new phenomenon that faces European cities and architects alike is the fact that additions cause constraints, according to Herzog & de Meuron: “[they] demand a very different kind of creative energy”.  Limitations can impose on materiality and footprint for example. Starting from scratch is not always an option; a hybrid of styles, indicative of each decade in which an extension is made, now make up the Tate Modern and its Switch House: a mixture of tradition, Art Deco, and modernism coherently build upon the original, rather than fight against it.

While additions are commonplace as cities expand outwards and upwards, they can dictate the strategy of the overall design. Extensions can also be controversial. People will either prefer it to the original, vice versa, or even deem it unnecessary all together. For the Switch House, the architects decided to ‘accept the physical power’ of the behemoth brick building and ‘enhance it rather than breaking it or trying to diminish it’.  It’s made up of ten floors to house a portion of the collection that was in storage, increasing the gallery space by 60%; a functional yet aesthetic addition. Herzog & de Meuron described their strategy as the ‘Aikido strategy’ where they harnessed the characteristics and space of the existing building and funneled them into their new design.

The pyramidal tower is encased in latticed brickwork to maintain a ‘similar visual code’ to the Turbine Hall, bending and folding into sharp corners which allow for long ribbon windows to accentuate the angularity of the building.  It certainly looks related to Herzog & de Meuron’s design for the de Young Museum in San Francisco, created back in 2005.  Similar to the de Young, the Switch House exterior brick partially covers windows making the outer shell porous and floods the landings with natural light. While these elements are similar, the designers insist ‘there is no house style’, demonstrated by their range expressed in the Beijing National Stadium and Prada Aoyama to name a few.  The democratic ethos of Tate Modern is also echoed in the building’s footprint, which now has entrances from the north, south and west and extends up to the viewing deck, giving the public all-access and a 360-degree view of London’s skyline, adding to an institution that’s become the most visited modern art museum in the world.

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